HOW MUCH DIFFERENCE has David Cunliffe’s “victory” made to Labour? Or, to give that question a slightly different emphasis: how much difference has it been allowed to make?
Before attempting to answer the latter question, let me respond to the former by affirming that the hard-won right of Labour’s members to play a decisive role in choosing their party leader was an extremely important progressive achievement (most observers and commentators on New Zealand politics still haven’t worked out how important). But if we are to call Cunliffe’s September 2013 win a “victory” it is important to acknowledge that it was by no means complete.
To secure a complete victory Cunliffe needed not only the votes of the Party’s rank-and-file but a rock-solid commitment from Labour’s organisational leadership to discipline any Labour MP unwilling to demonstrate by word and deed that they understood and accepted the revolutionary constitutional changes instituted by the 2012 and 2013 annual conferences.
The subsequent behaviour of the Labour Caucus (which, it should be remembered, failed to endorse Cunliffe’s elevation to the leadership) makes it very clear that the party organisation has not been able (or willing?) to bring the parliamentary wing to heel. For this failure the party president, Moira Coatsworth, and her NZ Council should not be criticised too severely. Such a divisive exercise would’ve signalled that the party organisation was at last ready to embark on a final reckoning with the ideological and human legacy of Rogernomics. That could only have been an extremely bloody affair involving multiple casualties – not the sort of spectacle calculated to garner public support in an election year!
And yet the party’s failure to engage with the “Old Guard” is already exacting a heavy political price. Confident that the unstated threat of Labour MPs’ exposing the fragility of Cunliffe’s caucus authority will protect dissidents from the wrath of both the Leader’s and the party’s Head Office, the Old Guard are slowly but surely imprisoning Cunliffe in a right-wing policy framework designed to damage his left-wing credentials in the eyes of trade union affiliates, Labour’s rank-and-file and, eventually, the voters.
Nowhere is the Old Guard’s determination to preserve their neoliberal legacy more evident than in the debate over Labour’s free trade policies. Rumblings of discontent about caucus’s support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement were clearly audible at last year’s annual conference in Christchurch and open division on the issue was only narrowly averted by the last-minute intervention of Cunliffe himself.
That may have been a mistake. Certainly, the party’s failure to establish a clear position on the TPP has been seized upon by Labour’s strongest free-trade advocate, the former Trade Minister and current spokesperson, Phil Goff.
Since the November conference Goff has conceded nothing to his party’s misgivings about the TPP, speaking out publicly and repeatedly in its favour. Free-trade advocates in the news media, most particularly Fran O’Sullivan, have not been slow to seize upon Goff’s statements as evidence of Cunliffe’s dilemma. Her argument: that the entrenched positions of his more moderate colleagues means Cunliffe cannot follow through on his promises to the Labour Left; is rapidly becoming the conventional wisdom.
O’Sullivan’s case is certainly not weakened when Goff himself puts out a media release (“Labour Pushes NZ Trade Interests in US”, 20/1/14) detailing his week-long visit to the United States where, by his own admission, he met with and was briefed by representatives of the State Department, The Pentagon and the Office of the US Trade Representative.
“Particularly valuable”, says Goff, “was an hour-long discussion with US TPP Chief Negotiator, Barbara Weisel, who I’ve worked with extensively in the past.”
Placed alongside John Key’s round of golf with President Obama, Goff’s hour with Weisel indicates the importance the United States Government attaches to preserving New Zealand’s bi-partisan commitment to free-trade issues.
Were I in David Cunliffe’s shoes, Goff’s easy access to and long-established contacts within the Washington beltway would give me pause. It is hard to dispel the impression that what New Zealand’s current Leader of the Opposition thinks about such issues is regarded by the world’s movers and shakers as being considerably less important than the views of old friends like Goff.
It should certainly prompt Cunliffe to devote as much time and discussion as he can to the State of the Nation speech he has announced for the 27 January. Special consideration should be given to the meaning of last September’s victory over Grant Robertson and Shane Jones. Does it mean that he need not worry about the opinions of his caucus colleagues? Or is the opposite true? Does the absence of majority caucus support make the opinions of his colleagues more important than ever before?
Labour’s new rules mean that when party members gather for their annual conference their democratically-elected Leader’s supremacy is politically unassailable. But the party cannot remain in conference forever. When the delegates return home it is the caucus that continues to meet. With his personal powerbase scattered all over the country, and lacking the backing of a solid majority of his parliamentary colleagues, Cunliffe will find it increasingly difficult to manage the oligarchical demands of caucus politics.
Only when caucus members are as dependent upon the good opinion of the wider party membership as the Leader will it be safe to call his or her election a victory.